Southside With You premiered at Sundance on January 24 of this year, 10 days after the Oscar nominations were announced, 10 days after it was clear that the Academy had neglected to nominate any people of color in the acting categories for the second straight year. Southside must have seemed like a fresh breath in that thin mountain air, a progressive step away from the systemic Hollywood problems that the #OscarsSoWhite discussion decried. An imagining of how President Barack Obama and Michelle then-Robinson’s first date went down, Southside features a cast that is entirely black and spends much of its time as a showcase of a dialogue on race relations and blackness between its two principal characters (Barack is played by Parker Sawyers, Michelle is played by Tika Sumpter). The Sundance crowd received the movie fondly— many of the reviews that make up its current 90 percent on Rotten Tomatoes date back to the Sundance screenings.
Southside does what so few movies—I actually can’t think of any—have done: It allows its black characters to walk and talk and look at art (specifically that of Ernie Barnes) and talk some more and attend a community-planning meeting and talk even more and watch Do the Right Thing and talk and talk and talk. It’s interested in its characters’ interior lives with a patience that is lacking in current movies overall, and regardless of the race of its characters and creators (in press, the Before Sunrise series is referenced repeatedly when referring to Southside’s format). Its writer-director, who based his fictionalized account on published descriptions and records of said date (which did include a Do the Right Thing screening, as the movie had just been released at the time), is 31-year old Richard Tanne, who is, as he told me earlier this week over coffee at the Crosby Street Hotel’s restaurant, a white guy who grew up in Livingston, NJ.
Tanne is far from the first white director to make a movie about black people—Sean Baker, who directed last year’s trans sex-worker screwball comedy Tangerine, is a recent example. The tradition, in fact, stretches back decades (think Jack Hill’s Pam Grier blaxploitation vehicles, or that most of the directors of the original Roots miniseries were white). Nonetheless, I was curious about how Tanne’s background brought him to Southside, and so, for about 20 minutes, we talked about what it means for a white guy to be directing what is ostensibly a black movie. Does Southside With You diversify, even with a white guy at its helm? Must its potential diversity come with a caveat? Whose voice is actually being broadcast here? For a movie that had a number of black producers (including Sumpter and John Legend), a black composer doing its score (Stephen James Taylor), a black casting director (Tracy “Twinkie” Byrd, who’s set for her own directorial debut with The Counter: 1960), and the aforementioned predominantly black cast, does Tanne’s race matter at all? The edited and condensed transcript of our conversation below should help to start chipping away at the questions that start to surface once the basic hurdle of basic representation is cleared.
JEZEBEL: This movie is not just invested in portraying black characters, but in exploring intricacies of black lives. What led you to that subject matter?
RICHARD TANNE: What led me to to that subject matter was the first date of the Obamas. It’s not like I was setting out—at first—to tell a story about race in America or a story about black culture seen through the eyes of two people. I was at first compelled to tell the beginnings of their romance, literally the beginning moment, and when you research them, what I found was that they were both people who were preoccupied with race and with their place in the racial makeup of this country. You discover all of these nuances, cultural nuances, racial nuances that maybe I wouldn’t have been so aware of. That was one of the great discoveries for me in researching and writing it—being able to step outside of my breadth of experience, outside of myself and walk in the shoes of other people.
Where were you regarding race in America before starting this project? Is it a subject you were passionate about? Did you care?
Yeah, I did. My gateway into race in America began with Do the Right Thing, which I think was another draw for me to tell this story. On a geeky film buff level, being able to recreate the opening weekend, and have a movie theater and have people sitting there and watching it—What would the crowd have been like?—that was really exciting for me. It was my most fun day on set, standing by the poster and the marquee.
But that’s sort of superficial. What was really meaningful to me is when I first saw that movie, I think I was 13 years old. Maybe not even yet? That was my first Spike Lee movie, and I loved that movie. That movie just opened my mind up to different perspectives, to the fact that we have divided cities, a divided country. There were a lot of police killings around that time, not too dissimilar from what we’re experiencing now, and have been the last couple of years. But it was all bubbling to the surface, and I hadn’t been exposed to that before. That movie didn’t have easy answers, and we don’t have easy answers. I lived in a predominantly white suburban town, and after that movie I started to become aware of whiteness. I started becoming aware of blackness. I became very interested in black cinema. One of my favorite filmmakers, who was also a big inspiration for this movie—I even stole his composer to score the film—was Charles Burnett, who did To Sleep With Anger. His movies also deal with the black experience in America, but The Glass Shield also deals with racial disparity in the police force. Movies are what opened my eyes to the disparities.
Did you feel pressure to accurately portray this experience, being a white guy? How could you be sure that you got it right?
Last night [Monday] we screened at the Film Society at Lincoln Center, and after the film, during a Q&A, an African American woman raised her hand and said, “I just want you to know I’m from South Shore. I grew up two blocks away from the Robinson home. I just want you to know that you nailed what it’s like to be there. What it feels like. What the people are like. The community.” You can never really know until it’s done. I’ve had a lot of people come up to me like that. From black folks who see it, the response is typically—and look there’s a lot of people I don’t talk to, so maybe they feel differently—“Thank you for putting this positive imagery out there and showing different facets of the black experience.”
One of the really interesting things that became more apparent to me was “the black experience”—and I put that in quotes—is not monolithic. Barack and Michelle Obama are nothing if not perfect examples of that. They came from totally different backgrounds and experiences. And that is what I was able to hang my hat on. It was: I’m not putting a one-size-fits-all black lens over this movie. It’s all character based. If at this point in time in the story, something comes up conversationally, they’re going to have different points of view as black Americans, just as two white people would have different points of view if they were coming from different backgrounds. I tried to just be authentic about that—about how characters would react based on their experiences.
I’ve never seen a movie where two black characters are free to leisurely walk and talk and look at art, and that’s about it. From a representational perspective, this movie in a quiet way, is radical. Were you thinking about that when you were making it?
Making a movie is so hard, and writing a script is really hard. The amount of hours I’ve spent in a room banging my head against the wall, trying to come up with the right sentence, the right word. Why do we do it to ourselves? I wasn’t thinking...If I was a smarter person, just in day to day life, I would have considered the challenge, the ramifications, or the implications, but I just wanted to tell their love story. I wanted to tell the story of the first date. And then the first date kept telling me that there were other things coming up. I just received what was there and I tried to imbue the script with what was coming up.
But then when the script was done and people started reading it, I heard Tika’s reaction. She was involved as a producer. I spoke to my casting director, Tracy “Twinkie” Byrd, who’s also African American, and she said to me—and I didn’t understand it at the time—“You don’t realize what this is going to mean for black women.” And then Tika said, “Finally, a black woman gets to be the prize.” There were all these indicators along the way that the movie could potentially hold special meaning for African American audiences if we pulled it off. But I never let that distract me, because it always had to be about the connection between the two actors and the two characters, and how that evolved. We always just kept that as the focus. And anything else that sprouted is gravy.
A lot of the producers are black, your casting director was, etc., but I wonder if it’s safe to say that it’s easier for a white guy to get a black movie made than it would have been for a black filmmaker.
No one wanted me to make the movie. There are people who wanted the script and the film, but without me. It’s hard for any first-time filmmaker to get the check for the budget to run the film. What tipped the scales was Tika. The guy that financed it, Stuart Ford, he was reassured by my vision. We connected and he felt that I had the goods. But it was Tika who brought the project to Stuart Ford. She had a preexisting relationship with him. So it was this partnership where we backed each other. I backed her in her first lead in a movie, she backed me as first-time director.
It’s hard to know what it would have been like if an unknown black director was at the helm, but that is something I feel is being addressed right now after the #OscarsSoWhite controversy. I hesitate to call it a sea change, because we had an explosion of black cinema in the early ‘90s in the studio system that just went away, literally went away. There was a time when in the early ‘90s, you could be John Singleton coming out of USC, you could be the Hughes Brothers, and you got your shot. And now it seems like it might be coming back a little bit.
What inspired the Do the Right Thing sequence at the end, where the Barack character gives one interpretation of Mookie’s trashcan throwing to his white boss, but reveals his actual emotional interpretation to Michelle? It seems to play into Michelle’s dialogue earlier in the movie about having to exist on “Planet Black” and “Planet White.”
It was always really comical to me that my white friends didn’t understand the ending of Do the Right Thing, and my black friends did. It wasn’t even something that could be articulated, necessarily, just one group is confused, one group gets it on an emotional level. I had that notion in the back of my mind for many years. It’s not just me—Spike Lee has gone on record many times that only someone who’s nonblack would question the ending. I’m paraphrasing. Here was an opportunity for Barack and Michelle, who’d just seen the movie, to have their perspective on it. They really did run into a partner from the firm [outside the theater]. [The character] is not based on the actual person—it’s what I needed it to be for the story, which is to lay out the difference in perspective. The guy in the movie means well it’s just that his white privilege bubble hasn’t been popped yet, so he sees it in a completely different way. It’s all coming from a character point of view, not to impose an intellectual idea on it, but just the idea that Barack could walk both lines, he could straddle both worlds. Michelle in that moment is dealing with her own gender politics, so she’s not even plugged in at the moment to the racial disparity that’s going on.
You said at Sundance that Barack and Michelle are aware of the movie, but have you had updates since?
All I’ve heard since is that [John] Legend has spoken to the president about it, and that he’s aware of it. John said it was a good movie and that he thinks they’ll like it. He was hoping they’ll watch it on vacation. They have it, so we’ll see.
Southside With You is in theaters today.